In 1989, I was a copywriter for a small business-to-business advertising agency in Milwaukee.
Two facts stand out about this job. The first is that the shop did not use a creative brief. The document was not part of its day-to-day operations. I fixed that.
The second relates to one of its bigger clients, an American manufacturer of turf equipment, one of whose marketing executives I met on many occasions. This executive used to repeat a phrase I never forgot. He used it every time I, or one of my colleagues, asked this question when we started a new project:
“What’s the one, most important thing we need to say about your product?”
His answer still startles me, almost 30 years later.
“We don’t have just one thing,” he said. “We have a unique package of features.”
Except that no one tells a story about a unique package of features. That’s not how it works.
Storytelling as a tool for advertisers was not on many people’s minds in the late 1980s. A handful of brilliant thinkers, like Steve Jobs, knew better.
The history of storytelling dates to at least cave dwellers who left us drawings on walls that told visual stories. Let’s just say that storytelling is old.
The creative brief isn’t. But chances are, few people working in advertising today were in the business when the creative brief came into existence. Account planning was born in 1965, and with it the creative brief.
The purpose of the creative brief has remained unchanged since its inception: to give succinct and inspired instructions to an advertiser’s creative partners with the expectation that a sales-driving idea emerges.
In the last 50+ years, the creative brief’s template has changed, but its purpose has not. It remains debatable whether the brief’s credibility and respect match its designed purpose, but that’s another story.
At least three questions that should be on every creative brief provide the impetus for a memorable brand story.
But first, a word of advice:
No brand story can unfold without internal buy-in. An authentic brand story is not manufactured. It does not arise from external (meaning outside the company) sources. It does not answer the questions What? or How? about a brand. It answers Why? Why does the brand exist?
Think about the best brand storytellers and you’ll see why this advice is true. And why it matters.
Here’s my short list:
I’ll let the founders speak. (By the way, I own two pairs. I LOVE ’em!!)
I’ve used this product, too, but not currently. This isn’t an endorsement. It’s high praise for the story they tell. Here’s a highlight from their website:
“Our mission is to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone.”
Every piece of communication from the company reflects this singularly focused message.
I use an electric shaver, but if I didn’t, I’d probably buy Harry’s razors. Why? I’ll let their website speak:
The shaving company that’s fixing shavingWe created Harry’s to be different from the other shaving brands. Unlike the big brands that overdesign and overcharge, we make a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys.
Each brand’s core message answers the question: Why does this product exist? That’s what the story is built around.
So which questions on the creative brief help creatives arrive at a brand story?
1. What is the Single-Minded Proposition? No matter what you might call it, and it has many names (Unique Selling Proposition, The One Thing, Key Message), this is the heart of any great story.
You’ll know your story is right when you can end it with this line: “And that’s the reason why (single-minded proposition here)…”
Try it with the three brands on my list of brilliant storytellers above. It works.
2. What is an authentic customer insight? If you’re focused on meeting company goals, you can’t successfully address what your customer needs. They come first. Always. A believable story begins and ends with your customer. Your insight should reflect this essential truth.
Arriving at an authentic customer insight does not require gobs of research money. If you know what the Socratic Method is, you have the tools to dive deep into your customers’ thinking to discover and address your their emotional wants and needs.
3. What is the company/product/service background? If you don’t ask this question, you will never understand why the company or product or service came into being. You need to be the equivalent of a brand archeologist. Move beyond features and benefits.
We advertising folk are storytellers. It’s in our DNA to fashion a story on behalf of the brands we are tasked to sell.
The details—the essential elements of your story—are embedded in the creative brief.
Storytelling is about basics. So is the creative brief. It’s the first step in developing your authentic brand story.